Category Music

Brilliant Songs #4: Jason Isbell’s “If We Were Vampires”

There are times when a song or a phrase, a picture or a wisp of cloud, a gnarled old tree or a glance from a stranger, hits us like a bomb, but a good kind of bomb—one that shakes us out of the stupor we too often descend into as we forsake sharing with our own lives the precious gift of our true and careful attention.

And so it was, apparently, with rootsy singer-songwriter Jason Isbell and his complete absence from my radar (Just how did that happen?) until late last night when my music aficionado friend Kevin saw fit to send me a link to an Isbell song, and the bomb exploded.

The song—“If We Were Vampires”—helped Isbell and “The 400 Unit” of musicians that serve as his backup band win a trio of awards the other night at the American Honors and Awards Show in Nashville. Best Song, Best Album (which contained the song) and Best Duo-Group of the Year.

All well and good, but in the case of a...

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A Music All Their Own: A Punch Brothers Appreciation

There are bluegrass bands, country bands, indie, hard rock and alt rock bands, roots bands, pop bands, blues bands, punk bands, dance bands, soul groups, jazz combos, chamber ensembles. Genres on lists as long as Kevin Durant’s arm.

And then there are the Punch Brothers.

Oh sure, their foundation, as it were, may be in bluegrass, usually with a “progressive” fronting it, and it’s a handy enough label when looking at their classic bluegrassian instruments: mandolin, guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle.

And while bluegrass is a perfectly fine genre, the Punch Brothers bust through that label early and often in their concerts and albums, with all the ease of schoolboy football players tearing through those paper barriers that purport to separate their locker room from the field under Friday night lights.

Perhaps you have heard or seen them, or at least heard of them? If not, let this post serve as an intr...

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Brilliant Songs No. 3: Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”

Sometimes, a song strikes us as so lovely in melody or phrasing that the singer could be reciting the New York City phone book, as the old saying goes, and we’d be over the moon and humming the thing all day long. Other times, the writing is so poetic or haunting that the melody need not enter our bloodstream, as it were, for us to be moved to tears.

The very best songs, of course, cover both those bases, tickling our melodic bones and stimulating our cravings for language that tells a meaningful tale, suggests a profound truth, or just plain sounds fun and clever and worth repeating to friends.

So it is with Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine,” a rollicking, witty, and musically complex song that Porter’s publishers banned to the “B” side as a throwaway to the anticipated hit of “Indian Love Call” for the bandleader Artie Shaw when it was first pressed into a record in 1938...

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Sixth Annual “Songs of Summer”

Three songs, summer-themed, on or very near the solstice. A respite, a celebration, a salute to whatever shreds of sanity, shoots of hope and shards of joy  we may be able to cultivate in a world that often seems hellbent, for rather baffling reasons, on denying them all.

Welcome to the Sixth Annual Songs of Summer! If you’re new to this space and wondering why so-and-such song isn’t in the lineup, it may well have already had its moment in the sun, sun, sun, either here or here or here or here or here. (Those will take you to years one through five if you feel in the mood for an orgy of summer sounds, minus the cicadas.)

So, to cite a beloved phrase from another summer pastime of some renown: “Batter up!”

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The big choice in “Summer Rain” was whether to present Johnny Rivers in his so-called prime in 1973, or to put a 2013 version in front of you. In the latter,  Johnny (“Secret Agent Man,” “Poor S...

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Brilliant Songs No. 2: Dawes’s “A Little Bit of Everything”  

With his back against the San Francisco traffic
On the bridge’s side that faces towards the jail
Setting out to join a demographic
He hoists his first leg up over the rail

With those first four lines of plaintive scene setting just above a simple piano riff, songwriter Taylor Goldsmith of the folk/rock/indie band Dawes places listeners right there behind yet another Golden Gate Bridge would-be suicide jumper, perhaps reflexively reaching their arms out or emitting an involuntary and horrified, “NooooooDON’T DO IT!”

Talk about the power of words to imagine, to relate, to respond.

I am indebted to reader and friend Randall Chet for bringing “A Little Bit of Everything” to my attention in the Comments section of the inaugural entry in this “Brilliant Songs” series. I had never heard of Dawes nor this song, but I have found it staying with and accompanying me on my walks, my garden-tending, ...

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